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Superheroes battle on small screens

Batman may well be lurking in the same corridors as the X-Men, but their creators disagree about how many superheroes will be trying to nudge them aside as they make the leap from printed panels to syndie strips.

“Next year there will be a glut of superhero shows on,” says Alan Burnett, one of the three “Batman” producers for Warner Bros. Warners will proceed very carefully before it adds another contestant to a crowded competition, he notes.

Rival Marvel has two projects due out in the fall and expects to have four half-hours of animated superheroes on TV by the end of the year.

“Saturation is not a matter of genre,” says Avi Arad, president of Marvel films.

In the comic-book world, Marvel and DC have the two deepest catalogs of superheroes to call on in creating newseries. Along with upstart companies, they are battling for a piece of the superhero pie made all the more enticing through multimedia.

“Our readers are computer guys,” Arad says. “Our readers were into CDs before anybody else.” He’s considering introducing role-playing games. As opposed to videogames, based on chase and combat, Arad is talking about games that let players become comic-book characters, along the lines of a Dungeons and Dragons model.

Newcomers without catalogs are finding a number of ways to introduce characters. Malibu Comics has already published titles on compact disc through a company called Davidson & Associates. Founded in 1986 by Scott Rosenberg, Malibu introduced in June a series of comic books built on a fantasy world called the Ultraverse.

Malibu Films, which produces commercials and in-house materials, also produces half-hour live-action videos based on Ultraverse characters. According to Malibu, they can “be viewed as stand-alone TV series pilots, promotional tools for the filmmaking community as a whole or as in-store screeners for public consumption.”

In the cards

Malibu has already mounted a line of trading cards based on the Ultraverse. It has CD and conventional videogames coming. “Animation-wise,” Rosenberg says, “we decided to hold off until we launched the Ultraverse, until everybody bought off on how successful it was going to be.” Malibu says its distribution jumped from 3 million pieces in ’91 to 15 million last year.

At Marvel, Lisa Geisenheimer, director of licensing, is watching the compact disc too. “It’s possible to incorporate elements of TV shows, comics and games on CD-ROM,” she says. “We can add music or animate classic stories.”

As for now, she admits: “We’re waiting to see which formats drop out and which ones will be formats of the future.”

One of the key people at DC Comics looking at the interactive field is Chantal d’Aulnis, VP for business affairs international rights. She gets involved with everything from novelizations of the death and return of Superman to toys and programs on BBC radio.

As for CD-ROM, she says, “I get proposals like that every other day, but so far I haven’t seen anyone who can do more than a fancy slide show.”

D’Aulnis was impressed with the packaging of “Maus” for CD-ROM. Voyager, the interactive publisher, added maps, photos and documents that date back to the war and the Holocaust. The result, d’Aulnis says, is “constant reality checks, factual information to test your interpretation of the story.”

“We have 60 years of stories,” she says. “To be successful you have to create for the interactive medium.”

Right now “Batman” is the only DC-based animated series in production. But DC is also home to such perennials as Superman and Wonder Woman.

“Everything today is interactive,” says Arad of Marvel Films. “Jello is interactive. We want to find a way to take stories and make them truly interactive.”

In the coming year, Marvel will produce a Spider-Man half-hour for Fox, which already carries the superpowered “X-Men” series on Saturday mornings. A second show, “The Marvel Action Hour” is slated for syndication through Genesis Entertainment, another Marvel affiliate. The hour combines Fantastic Four and Iron Man segments with vignettes in which creator Stan Lee talks about his Marvel creations.

The toon projects are being produced under the banner of Marvel Films Animation, which, according to Lee, will produce all new Marvel animated projects.

The top-rated “X-Men” is produced for Fox by Saban.

“We are primarily a creative organization, ” Lee says. “I have an office of file folders filled with ideas for features and TV shows.”

Lee adds that after the TV shows are up and running, the company wants to develop a full-length animated feature.

Another new player, Nelvana, produces a half-hour for ABC based on the comic-book classic “Tales From the Crypt.” In its animated “Tales From the Cryptkeeper,” Nelvana is bringing morality tales to the medium. In the comic book, a character’s transgression brings down ironic, usually lethal punishment.

As chairman Michael Hirsh sees it, “Cryptkeeper” has challenged a few truisms into the bargain.

“For so many years, the philosophy in children’s television has been to not underline morality, not underline the lesson,” says Hirsh. “We felt there was a need for some clear-cut, plain morality.”

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